Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” includes the most iconic setting in 20th-century theater. You know what it’s going to look like: two tramps, a country road, a tree. As Gertrude Stein might have said, Godot is Godot is Godot.
But it ain’t necessarily so. The minimalist masterpiece has taken on strikingly varied looks since challenging Paris audiences and critics in 1953, when it first appeared (and the title character didn’t). The tramps Vladimir and Estragon vamp in the void — that’s the Beckett take on life — but the void can be dismally dusty or lyrically cosmic, depending on how designers want to put together the script’s simple ingredients:
A country road. A tree.
“It’s prescriptive and liberating at the same time,” says Francis O’Connor, who designed the set and costumes for the Druid Theatre Company’s “Godot.” (The show arrives April 17 from Ireland at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.) “There are certain things Beckett demands, but they’re simple, elemental things. That leads you to try to find the definitive in the object.”
The show’s juiciest variable tends to be the casting, often packaged as star pairings. (Steve Martin and Robin Williams! Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin! Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen!) Political circumstances also have led to notable versions — Susan Sontag’s 1993 “Godot” in Sarajevo, Bosnia, as well as an outdoor “Godot” in the rubble of post-Katrina New Orleans. Less obvious has been what designers can do with a rock, a road, the moon and a tree.
“What the hell are we going to do with the tree?” O’Connor says he and director Garry Hynes asked themselves. Beckett himself obsessed over a spindly tree created by sculptor Alberto Giacometti for a 1961 staging in Paris. “We didn’t want to do a radical reimagining, but an honest response to what Beckett wanted,” O’Connor says.
The Druid production gets an unusual high-gloss frame that reminds audiences how showbizzy “Godot” is. The play was rather desperately billed as “the laugh riot of two continents” during its 1956 U.S. premiere in Miami, but even with Bert Lahr as Estragon, audiences didn’t get the joke and fled en masse. The vaudeville roots are deep, though, as Vladimir and Estragon swap one-liners and physical shtick. Their act cries out for a traditional stage, and Druid’s theater in Galway lacks a proscenium arch. So O’Connor faked one by outlining the playing area in rectangles of light.
“It’s a contemporary take on the lights you get around a vaudeville stage,” O’Connor says of the bright yet stark box. “The play’s images are so pictorial, and framing that just heightens it.”
For the tree — supposedly too weak for the at-the-end-of-their-rope tramps to hang themselves on — O’Connor eventually came up with a sculpture of six-inch galvanized boat nails. To take the shine off the nails, he made a huge fire and burned them to remove the protective coating, then left them in the rain to rust.
“I thought when you welded them together it would be an illusion of bark and tree that felt apt,” he says of the skeletal object. “It alluded to the kind of wood of the cross. Christian imagery does figure in the play.” It has always been asked whether Godot, pronounced “GOD-oh” in Britain, is an absent God, and the tramps banter about the crucifixion. “So not only is that going to look fantastic,” O’Connor says, “it has resonances. And it felt honest.”
Teresa Przybylski’s 2013 Stratford Festival design (for a show starring Brian Dennehy as the wandering tyrant Pozzo) emphasized the road: That was the set, a white strip the width of a sidewalk that seemed to hover in the blackness. The image was as explicitly Beckettian as his brutal “Happy Days” design, which commands that its chirpy heroine, Winnie, be buried up to her waist in the first act and up to her neck by the second.
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more,” Pozzo says in “Godot.”
The moon loomed large in the landscape by Tony Straiges in 1983, the year before he designed Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” on Broadway. The “Godot” at Boston’s American Repertory Theatre put the actors on a lunar white floor, with a moon that introduced charm into a play that people often consider deadly bleak.
“The moon was a big deal, especially because we also added a spectacular sky filled with stars,” director Andrei Belgrader says by email. (The early 19th-century Caspar David Friedrich painting “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” is often cited as inspiration for Beckett, whose plays can be as visually frozen as photos.) “As per Mr. Beckett, the night fell suddenly (and I mean suddenly), and the stars and the huge moon were there instantly. The audience responded with a big laugh and then great silence as they took in the new landscape. Tony’s set was spectacular.”
“Godot” had no toehold on Broadway from 1956 until the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2009 staging with Irwin as the heady Vladimir, Lane as the less refined Estragon and John Goodman as Pozzo. Designer Santo Loquasto went all in with the rock, to which the sore-footed Estragon occasionally retreats. Loquasto’s mountainous rock created presence, rather than void, a rare visual amplitude.
“A ‘Flintstones’ Beckett,” one critic carped, while another — Lahr’s son, John — praised it as an “elegant rocky clearing” where “the ozone is full of brilliant blather.”
O’Connor calls Druid’s modest, stool-size rock a “pebble.” “Pebble is very smooth,” he says. “Layers of fiberglass sanded to within an inch of its life. We were going to paint it, but as it was sanded, it took on this semi-translucent quality. That was a happy accident. It felt very beautiful against the bark of the tree.”
The play can be deceptively warm or terribly frigid depending on the performances, and balancing knockabout farce with existential loneliness was something O’Connor and Hynes talked about at length; key to any design is how actors can and can’t use it throughout the show. O’Connor had seen only a couple of stagings when the assignment came to him, and he avoided research to keep his imagination as uncluttered as Beckett’s landscape.
“You Google it and umpteen productions come up,” he says. “Once you get a sniff of something someone else has done, it’s in the back of your head.”
Waiting for Godot April 17-May 20 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre. 202-547-1122 or shakespearetheatre.org.